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After 26 years, lakes deal still haunts Girard

It’s been 26 years since the city of Girard purchased the Upper and Lower Lakes with pie-in-the-sky dreams of creating a city-run water service for its 12,000 residents.

The bad decision and the subsequent problems resulting from the purchase still haunt the city. Sadly, taxpayers still are holding the bag. Some might describe the situation as a comedy of errors, but no mess costing millions of dollars is a laughing matter.

Here’s some history about the city’s 1995 decision to purchase the lakes under former Mayor Vincent ”Sonny” Schuyler’s administration. Council, at the time, voted 5-2 in favor of the purchase for $2.5 million. Then-Councilmen Daniel Moadus Jr. and Donald Rex were shrewd enough to know council was being bamboozled and voted against the purchase. But, according to Tribune Chronicle archives, five council members — Lou Adavasio, Leo Grimes, Thomas Kolic, Reynald Paolone and Mark Zuppo — voted yes on the purchase.

The day of the March 1995 vote, Rex made this prophetic statement: ”As my dear old Irish-Macedonian mother told me: ‘If you’re in doubt, don’t do it.”’

Girard officials had been dreaming about creating their own drinking water system, estimated at the time to cost as much as $15 million. The quality of the water in the two lakes, however, later was called into question and some experts predicted it would have required costly treatment and careful monitoring to make the water potable.

Around 2003, the lakes were appraised by Diversified Evaluation Co. of Pittsburgh at a market value of $1.25 million. When the loan borrowed from the Ohio Water Development Authority finally was paid off, some $5 million was spent.

And that’s not to mention the Lower Lake’s dam was in such poor condition that it ultimately was declared structurally unsafe by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Repair estimates ranged up to $10 million.

That ultimately led to orders by state officials to reduce the water level of the Upper Lake by 5 feet and drain the Lower Lake. Residents will recall that draining process that killed thousands of fish in 2004.

Years of fiscal distress for Girard city followed the purchase, with former Ohio Auditor Jim Petro blaming, in large part, the purchase of the lakes.

In 2003, Mayor Jim Melfi asked then-Ohio Auditor Betty Montgomery to probe the lakes’ purchase.

Later that year, it was revealed that former Girard Law Director Ronald Marks had signed a confidentiality agreement when the city was negotiating the purchase of the lakes and their dams in 1994, meaning that council ultimately voted to approve the purchase without ever having full knowledge of all the details.

Today, the city has been trying to market about 750 acres of Girard Upper Lake property. But after receiving only one bid for $1 million for the property when the minimum bid was $4.2 million, officials have decided to try again. This time, they’ll consider retaining ownership of the dam, which still needs repairs, and sell the surrounding lake land separately.

After 26 years of headaches, we believe Girard leaders should reconsider that decision and take the offer. It’s time for the city and its taxpayers to move on from this debacle.

Further, this crisis should be a lesson for all public officials — do your homework. As former Councilman Rex wisely stated in 1995, “If you’re in doubt, don’t do it.”

And if someone doesn’t want to give you answers, then vote no until they do.

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